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Buddhism in the News


Friday, March 12, 2010

The Zen of Pain.

I have from time to time heard of monks who can meditate in the freezing cold and maintain a warm body temperature, and those who have a high threshold for pain. Well, it seems that science has proven that meditation helps reduce pain.

AFP, March 3, 2010

Montreal, Canada -- ZEN meditation helps lower sensitivity to pain by thickening a part of the brain that regulates emotion and painful sensations, according to a study published recently. University of Montreal researchers compared the grey matter thickness of 17 Zen meditators and 18 non-meditators and found evidence that practising the centuries-old discipline can reinforce a central part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. "Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to underlie their lower sensitivity to pain," lead author Joshua Grant said in a statement.

Building on an earlier study, the researchers measured thermal pain sensitivity by applying a heated plate to the calf of participants. This was followed by scanning the brains of subjects with structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI results showed central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators.

James: This isn't news to Buddhism because reports of over-coming pain have been known in Buddhist history for centuries. It is interesting though to see science proving it. It makes sense though that meditation, which regulates the mind would help reduce pain. There is clearly a connection between the mind and body, so it isn't any wonder that Buddhists teach that oneness of body and mind through meditation and mindfulness opens the way for a calmer state of being. This is proving that through meditation one can literally rewire the brain, which surely has something to do with realizing long-term enlightenment.

I have noticed actually a higher pain threshold since beginning my Buddhist practice. I blew it off at first as being pseudo-science experiences but this makes me rethink that position. When I get tattoos I can sit through the pain to where at times it actually feels good!! I think that's in part because I meditate while getting the tattoo. The first few tattoos that I got where quite painful and ironically enough that was a time before I was practicing Buddhist meditation.

This also makes me think of the pain experienced from doing sitting meditation when first starting out or when returning to a dormant practice. Because the more you practice, the less painful it seems to get:

"The often painful posture associated with Zen meditation may lead to thicker cortex and lower pain sensitivity," Grant opined. Several of the meditators tolerated a maximum 53°C produced by a heating plate. They appeared to further reduce their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators. "Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state," Grant said in the earlier study. Ultimately, Zen meditators experience an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity, according to the original study.

James: If everything is interdependent and interconnected then clearly it makes sense that the body can be tempered by the mind when its steered in the right direction. The mind in my opinion isn't entirely useless or bad as some Buddhists might believe. I see it as a wild horse that if tamed, it can accomplish some amazing things. After all, if we shut off the mind completely then we'd be piles of mush unable to be moved to practice compassion, loving-kindness and good will.

ADDENDUM: The blog just surpassed the 400,000 mark of visits--Thanks to everyone for all your visits, comments and conservations. Let's keep it going!! Bowing...

~Peace to all beings~

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Hannah said...

This is really interesting. Thanks for posting!

Shinzen said...

Pardon me for talking about my book, Black Belt Healing, but this post is what it is about. The practice of zazen is central to how I train martial artists to manage pain. The Samurai knew this as well. Thanks for the scientific evidence. Your post is wonderful.

turquoisemoon said...

Great post!!! Thanks for the info!

Shinzen said...

I just wanted to mention that to sit zen is to sit zen...not to manage pain. When sitting is just sitting all things are perfectly managed. To sit zen to get rid of pain actually increases pain. Just a pointer. Once again, thanks for the science.

They call him James Ure said...


I didn't mean to imply that one should sit Zazen just to eliminate pain. I was trying to state that it makes sense that the pain from sitting goes away after awhile and I was speculating that it has something to do with this science.

Shinzen said...

James: Sorry...I didn't mean to imply you said anything 'wrong'. I just wanted to make sure zazen was shown in the light I was taught. Again, didn't mean to come across too strong. Love your posts.

Julie said...

I imagine other factors involved are:
physical pain is often exacerbated by a mind out of control. When we hurt we then feel fear, anger, sadness, we worry about what the pain will be like next time etc. When in pain, sitting with a quiet mind and in the present, we often can look and see that in fact our pain isn't as bad as we thought before we became quiet.

and it seems to me the article implied that the actual sitting position might aid the brain in feeling less of the pain.

yudis said...

i like education from Budha

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drdevine said...

It is important to take care of your back and neck since back pain can make your life intolerable. Since back pain can completely interrupt your life, prevention is key. maintaining good posture and setting up your work station with good ergonomics as well as strengthening your back through exercise are all excellent ways to prevent back pain.

Kasif said...

Really a great piece of writing. Thanks for the sharing. Nice topic.

Seattle chiropractic said...

It's interesting how you describe pain to be not an energy in and of itself, but rather an interference with the natural energy of life. While I'm not buddhist myself, I believe that natural means are the best way to be cured of ailments that cause us pain.

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